LAS VEGAS â Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, raced his way into the second round of the playoffs with a victory Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to kick off the postseason.
“It takes the pressure off for sure, and the biggest thing is just more playoff points.Â And that’s huge. Any playoff points you can get will help you get to (the championship race at)Â Homestead,” Truex said after climbing out of his car in victory lane.
The win is Truexâs series-best fifth of the season and again cemented Joe Gibbs Racing as the team to beat in this 10-race playoff series. JGR has 14 wins this season through 27 races.
Truex chased down Kevin Harvick, who was slowed by traffic, to cut into Harvickâs lead and eventually make the pass for the win â and the automatic second-round spot â on the outside with 20 laps remaining in the playoff opener.
âIt was a lot of fun tonight, and anytime you get a car like that you have fun,” Truex said after the race.Â “But we did have our challenges. It wasnât easy for sure.Â
“We had to go to the back that one time for a pit road deal and work our way back to the front and then our car got off, and we lost some spots on that one run and luckily, we got a caution and was able to come in and fix it. We just had to do all the little things right.”
Las Vegas was a brutal opener for a handful of title contenders, including Kurt Busch, who crashed when his tire went flat and he finished last in the field. Erik Jones had an earlier mechanical issue and finished four spots higher in 36th.
The top nine finishers were all playoff contenders as Truex was followed by Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Kyle Larson and Joey Logano.
Harvick credited his Stewart-Haas Racing team with making massive gains all weekend to get him to a second-place finish.
âWe were way off when we got here this weekend. They just kept working. We qualified well,â Harvick said. âI knew the Gibbs cars would be tough. Martin was just so much better on the second half of the run. He made up that ground there, was able to stay close enough to us. My car started to get loose and push the front. It was just in kind of a four wheel drift. We really had OK speed at the first stage, but I still felt like the Gibbs cars were better than us.â
Kyle Busch hit the wall just five laps into the race and dropped two laps off the pace while his car was repaired. The regular-season champion finished 18th but was on track to finish fourth until he ran into the lapped car of Garrett Smithley nearing the end of the race.
âWe are the top echelon in motorsports and weâve got guys out here who have never won late model races, itâs pathetic. They donât know where to go,â Kyle Busch said. Smithley has 11 career Cup starts, but has never won a race in a national series, including ARCA.
Busch in later post-race interviews repeated several times âIâm just here so I donât get fined,â â a nod to celebrity pace car driver Marshawn Lynch, who used that line throughout his NFL career.
Pole-sitter Clint Bowyer started the race by leading all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers to the green flag, but he never could clear the traffic and eventually dropped to a 25th-place finish.
âWe just werenât very good tonight. We were just off. Off in all areas,â Bowyer said.
Kurt Busch, Bowyer and Jones are now the bottom three drivers in the 16-driver field and in danger of being eliminated in two weeks.
It was 100 degrees when the race began, hours later than it did last season because NASCAR felt it was too hot for fans in attendance.
STAGE 2:Â TruexÂ passed Logano when the reigning series champion was held up in traffic near the end of the 80-lap segment.
The second stage was difficult for playoff contenders Bowyer and Jones. Bowyer struggled from the pole, was lapped by Logano and ended the stage in 20th.
Jones went to the garage with a mechanical issue and was 16 laps off the pace when he returned to the track. He finished the second stage in last place.
STAGE 1:Â Logano won the opening stage, leadingÂ four Fords at the end of the segment.Â The Team Penske driver outdueled a trio of Stewart-Haas Racing drivers â Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez.
Kyle Busch, the regular-season champion,Â grazed the wall just five laps into the race and he plummeted to 28th in the running order.
Busch eventually had to pit for a tire rub under green and that dropped the regular-season champion to last in the 39-driver field and down two laps. Although he picked up a few positions, he was mired at the bottom of the running order in 32nd at the end of the stage.
Sunday from the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway (starting position in parentheses):
1. (24) Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, 267.
2. (3) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 267.
3. (18) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 267.
4. (8) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 267.
5. (23) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 267.
6. (19) Alex Bowman (P), Chevrolet, 267.
7. (14) William Byron (P), Chevrolet, 267.
8. (15) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 267.
9. (22) Joey Logano (P), Ford, 267.
10. (17) Ryan Newman (P), Ford, 267.
11. (9) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267.
12. (7) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 267.
13. (4) Aric Almirola (P), Ford, 267.
14. (21) Paul Menard, Ford, 267.
15. (13) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 267.
16. (27) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 267.
17. (6) Daniel Hemric â„, Chevrolet, 267.
18. (28) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 266.
19. (20) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, 266.
20. (2) Daniel Suarez, Ford, 266.
21. (25) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 266.
22. (11) David Ragan, Ford, 266.
23. (31) Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet, 266.
24. (10) Michael McDowell, Ford, 266.
25. (1) Clint Bowyer (P), Ford, 266.
26. (12) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 265.
27. (16) Ryan Preece â„, Chevrolet, 265.
28. (33) Corey LaJoie, Ford, 265.
29. (30) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 265.
30. (29) Matt Tifft â„, Ford, 264.
31. (32) Ross Chastain(i), Chevrolet, 262.
32. (36) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 260.
33. (35) BJ McLeod(i), Ford, 259.
34. (38) Joe Nemechek(i), Chevrolet, 257.
35. (34) Garrett Smithley(i), Ford, 255.
36. (26) Erik Jones (P), Toyota, 254.
37. (37) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 250.
38. (39) Joey Gase(i), Toyota, 249.
39. (5) Kurt Busch (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 187.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 142.555 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hours, 48 Minutes, 34 Seconds.Â
Margin of Victory: 4.173 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 4 for 22 laps.
Lead Changes: 24 among 14 drivers.
Lap Leaders: C. Bowyer (P) 1;D. Suarez 2-30;A. Almirola (P) 31-33;J. Logano (P) 34-42;M. McDowell 43-58;J. Logano (P) 59-83;K. Harvick (P) 84-86;W. Byron (P) 87;J. Logano (P) 88-123;C. Buescher 124;J. Logano (P) 125-157;M. Truex Jr. (P) 158-167;J. Logano (P) 168;M. Truex Jr. (P) 169-170;C. Elliott (P) 171-181;J. Logano (P) 182;D. Hamlin (P) 183-185;R. Blaney (P) 186;K. Harvick (P) 187-229;C. Elliott (P) 230;W. Byron (P) 231-235;K. Larson (P) 236-237;M. DiBenedetto 238-246;K. Harvick (P) 247;M. Truex Jr. (P) 248-267.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Joey Logano (P) 6 times for 105 laps; Kevin Harvick (P) 3 times for 47 laps; Martin Truex Jr. (P) 3 times for 32 laps; Daniel Suarez 1 time for 29 laps; Michael McDowell 1 time for 16 laps; Chase Elliott (P) 2 times for 12 laps; Matt DiBenedetto 1 time for 9 laps; William Byron (P) 2 times for 6 laps; Aric Almirola (P) 1 time for 3 laps; Denny Hamlin (P) 1 time for 3 laps; Kyle Larson (P) 1 time for 2 laps; Ryan Blaney (P) 1 time for 1 lap; Clint Bowyer (P) 1 time for 1 lap; Chris Buescher 1 time for 1 lap.